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Las Vegas man recalls leaving his Cuba as a child

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Updated: 7/16 2:21 am

LAS VEGAS (KSNV & MyNews3) -- One local community leader has been looking at the immigration situation from a different perspective. This is not the first time the United States has dealt with an exodus of foreign children.

"I remember leaving Cuba and my mother telling me she might never see me again," said Otto Merida, the President of Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce.

Merida vividly remembers the flight from Cuba to Miami, and having mixed feelings of fear and excitement as a teenager.

"Even though I was sad about the fact I was leaving and so forth," Merida said.

Merida was one of more than 14,000 Cuban children sent to the U.S. by their parents in what was known as "Operation Peter Pan."

Merida's first stop: a camp which received the children. He and 19 others were then sent to Wilmington, Delaware where he attended high school.

Eventually his parents also came to the United States.

Today Merida looks upon the Central American children arriving to the U.S. in droves, and says he can relate.

"But parents were desperate. Sometimes you do desperate things and that's what they did," Merida said.

Merida also says there are vast differences.

"The Cuban crisis, Peter Pan was more than anything else political. It was an issue of saying 'I don't want my kid to become a communist,'" Merida said.

The U.S. government and Catholic Charities sponsored the Peter Pan movement. The children arrived in planes.

And Merida strongly believes 'coyotes', those who arrange border crossings, are taking advantage of the Central American families and telling them lies about the United States immigration system.

"I'm totally against what's going on, and I think what is happening is a lot of misinformation," Merida said.

He says the country needs immigration reform now, but doesn't anticipate that happening anytime soon because of the nation's political divide.

Merida says he doesn't know what will happen, and he doesn't believe cities, especially Las Vegas, have the resources to absorb large populations of Central American children.

Operation Peter Pan ran from 1960-1962. People from 35 states were part of the effort in receiving the Cuban children.

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